Tiger Insider: This Gary Cooper Doesn't Have His Hollywood Ending Yet

by - Correspondent -
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Cooper caught 79 passes for 1592 yards and 11 touchdowns in his Clemson career.
Cooper caught 79 passes for 1592 yards and 11 touchdowns in his Clemson career.

Tiger Insider Magazine Exclusive Story for TigerNet

Gary Cooper has plenty of unfinished business.

For now he looks at a poster that hangs on his wall of a group of Clemson receivers. He’s there with Ricardo Hooper, Chip Davis, Keith Jennings and Robbie Spector.

Jennings’ is the only name you’d probably recognize unless you followed Clemson football closely in the final few years of Danny Ford’s career. Wide receivers, when Cooper played at Clemson, were the supporting cast to a stable of running backs that carried the load.

Hooper and Cooper, though, that had a ring to it when they were on the field together. This was long before Clemson recruited receivers that actually wanted to come to Clemson to run with a wide-open offense. If you came to Clemson then it was because you didn’t mind blocking.
Cooper didn’t come from Pennsylvania to Clemson because of the offense. He came because he wanted to play on a team that had a chance to win a national championship.

Clemson didn’t do that, but Cooper grew to love the South and to love Clemson.

The really good days at Clemson for Cooper were those Saturdays when Ford would run a play like the 434-Z-Post.

The 434-Z-Post would start out looking like an option play until the free safety took the bait. Then, Cooper, who had started a route that took him lazily across the middle, would run past the safety on a post pattern.

“Coop, it’s to you,” Rodney Williams said, looking at Cooper in the huddle in the first quarter of a scoreless game with Florida State in 1988.

Williams started down the line to the left side on an option play – no surprise there. Chip Davis intercepted the pitch, reversing the play to the right. He didn’t turn upfield, instead he pulled up to pass. The former high school quarterback planted his right foot, arched his back and heaved a pass downfield to Cooper. The Florida State defensive back fell as Coop ran past him. Coop caught the ball in stride and ran to the end zone, 61 yards from where the play had started.

Coop pumped his fists as he ran into the endzone.

He knew his role at Clemson. On a team dominated by running backs he knew he should enjoy every second he was on the field. Coop loved being on the field. He would tell the coaches they needed to pass the ball more.

When they threw it his way, Coop didn’t drop it.

“The toughest thing is not being able to, you know, play football or finish playing football,” he says from his wheelchair. “I felt like I had a chance to play in the pros.”


Coop has just returned from another three-month stay in the hospital to his home in Ambridge, Pa.

It can be easier on his mom when he’s in the hospital. Physically, it can be exhausting for Gloria Cooper to care for her son Gary.
“I was supposed to be taking care of my mother and now she’s having to take care of me like a kid,” he says.

Gloria has been taking care of Gary since June 4, 1991.

Cooper doesn’t mind talking about how it all happened, how he ended up in a wheelchair just two years after he left Clemson.

“I had just got done playing ball up in Canada,” he says in a quiet, exhausted voice. “I had been playing with the Saints in 1990. I made it to the final cut. Then I got hurt and they released me. I went up to Montreal to play with the World League of American Football. It was a new league.”
He was on the Montreal Machine with his friend Keith Jennings along with former Clemson players Henry Walls and K.D. Dunn.

“They had teams in Texas, Barcelona, all over the place.”

His final game in Montreal was a 33-27 loss to Orlando on May 27, 1991.

“I had been back home in Georgia for just three days when the Kansas City Chiefs called.”

Cooper was about to get another shot at the NFL. He never lacked for confidence when he was at Clemson. In that game against Florida State he was caught from behind by Deon Sanders and vowed to anyone that would listen after the game that he wouldn’t get caught from behind that year.

“We had some athletes on that team but the best ones were Donnell Woolford and Coop,” says his friend Ricardo Hooper.

He returned from Montreal to Calhoun, Ga., where he was living with his girlfriend Michelle Bryant, a former Clemson basketball player, and their son. Cooper had another son, who was five at the time.

“Me and my son and my son’s cousin…we were going to get a haircut. I took my son home and turned around and went back. It was the backwoods of Georgia. Calhoun, Georgia. I was living with my girlfriend. It was a slippery back road.

“They tried to say I was drunk, but I wasn’t. I had just gotten back from Canada. It was dusk and it started raining hard.”

June 4, 1991. Cooper has no problem recalling the date. He was in a 1988 Nissan Maxima.

“It was a head-on thing. They said from the looks of the car she hit on my passenger side. That killed her and my passenger. They tried to say I was at fault. It was my girlfriend’s cousin. He was going to go to Jackson State College. I was going to take him to Jackson State and then I was going to leave for Kansas City.”

A lot quicker than it took for him to retell it, everything was over for two people and Gary.

He can’t remember much from right after the accident or for the next two months while he was in an Atlanta hospital. He suffered what’s called a traumatic brain injury. He lost the use of his legs.

He never saw his car. “My father was supposed to go take care of the car, but I don’t think it ever happened.”

Charges were dropped. He moved back to Pennsylvania to rehab on November 14, 1991. On the way back he caught the last Clemson game he’s seen live.


There’s some that have been trying to bring back Danny down at Clemson.

Gary remembers Danny like the rest of the players that played for him. “He could motivate. When we put on those orange pants we felt like we could beat anybody, even an NFL team.

“He would tell me ‘Coop, you’re a great player…when somebody pisses you off.’”

Coop spends plenty of time thinking about those days.

“He was kinda a tough kid,” says Bill D’Andrea, who recruited Cooper. D’Andrea spent time on Ford’s staff and is now is a senior administrator in the athletic department. “He always came to play.”

“I was all about finishing school and having a good time. I was about meeting as many people as possible. Like they say, someday you might work for somebody.”

It doesn’t seem like that long ago when Coop was playing for Clemson.

He played in 47 games from 1985 to 1989 (he played in two games in 1985 before breaking his hand). He caught 79 passes for 1592 yards and 11 touchdowns. He rushed the ball 14 times for 142 yards a two touchdowns. He was Derrick Hamilton before there was Derrick Hamilton. He scored two touchdowns on end-around plays against Maryland in 1988. What he did was overshadowed by the running backs and the defense, but Cooper was a talent.
“In our drills he could run much faster and jump higher than any of the receivers,” says Hooper. “He was easily one of the better athletes on the team.”

Coop spent some time going back and finishing his accounting degree at a local school that could accommodate him. Right now, though, he’s having a hard time finding a place he can work. He can’t sit for long periods of time. His recent stint in the hospital was to correct a pressure sore that developed.

He spends his days around the house, except when the weather is warm. He became acclimated to the South and has yet to again get used to the weather he grew up in.

A nurse comes by to check on him daily. She’ll wash him and clean his sore every day. After that it all depends on the weather.
“When it’s cold I don’t go too many places,” he says.

Saturday night he fell asleep watching Clemson’s win over Florida State, waking up just in time to see the finish of the game. He couldn’t fall back asleep and watched the replay at 3 a.m. Sunday morning.

“That was exciting,” he says.


If his 18-year-old son Antwan does play any sports after high school it’ll be basketball. He’s 6-6. By the time basketball season starts, though, it’s too cold around Ambridge for Cooper to go out for any length of time. “He only plays basketball and by the time he’s playing it snows really hard here,” he says. “It’s hard for me to get there.”

The winters are hard on Coop. His birthday, December 14, used to be welcomed along with a case of pneumonia every year.

Even though he doesn’t get a chance to see his youngest son often and he doesn’t get to see the oldest play basketball, it was the kids that kept him going after the wreck.

His youngest is named Brandon and is in the eighth grade in Calhoun, Georgia. He talks to Brandon maybe twice a month. He and Brandon’s mother are on good terms. That helps him keep up with Brandon’s football, basketball and soccer.

“They had me going to a psychologist,” he says. “They thought I wasn’t going to be able to handle going from playing football to not being able to do as much. But I showed them that I could handle it. I could handle it as long as my kids were ok.”

He went to rehab, where he saw people in the same situation he was, if not worse. “I saw a lot of people there and their life had changed tremendously after an accident,” he says. “That’s what kinda kicked me from the start. I knew I wasn’t any worse off and that there were a lot of people that were worse off than I was. Then I read this book Why Bad Things Happen To Good People. That’s book is what kept me going. I used to go to rehab and see these kids with cancer. I might have thought I was bad off because I couldn’t play in the NFL. There was always somebody who was worse off than I am.

“As long as I lived and got better I was ok.”

His unfinished business now doesn’t involve football. He still misses it, but not like he would have missed it if he had made it to Kansas City and been cut. He would have had to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. This way he knows.

“I’m not sure how I’d do it, but I want to help the handicapped,” he says at the end of an hour-long conversation. Not return to play at Death Valley, not have June 4, 1991 all over again, not run another step. He would rather not have gone through all this, but now that he’s here he’s determined to make the best of it.

“Everybody asked me when I came home whether it hurt me talking about the accident or playing ball or watching football,” he says. “Talking about my accident keeps people from talking behind my back about it. I’d rather people ask me about what happened.”

He wouldn’t mind talking to any of his old teammates about what’s happened. Most have disappeared. He still keeps in touch with Hooper and Percy West. He spends lots of time on the computer. That’s how he got back in touch with Hooper.

He wouldn’t mind reliving the past with any of them. Just a visit, though.

There’s too much unfinished business to spend too long in the past.

Card for Gary

Gary has just returned from another three-month stay in the hospital to his home in Ambridge, Pa. Please take a moment to sign this card.

Get Well Soon Card

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